By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
It’s Constitution Day, Save Jerseyans, as good an opportunity as any to remind ourselves and those around us why the U.S. Constitution’s health and well-being persists as an appropriately popular topic of discussion for the American political Right particularly, I might add, in light of current events overseas.
Let’s start at the beginning. On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to sign the most remarkable document, in terms of global historical significance, since Magna Carta. The U.S. Constitution embodied a remarkable idea: that American government would derive its authority from the governed, and not the other way around; consequently, the people’s government would be bound to respect “certain unalienable rights” (h/t the Declaration of Independence) first expressed in 1776 but now codified in a written constitutional framework.
I doubt even the Framers understood how well they did. I firmly believe that too many modern Americans are clueless.
In the ensuing years, we’ve fought countless court battles, occasional street battles (in the civil rights era) and, at one point in the mid-19th century, an all-out civil war in order to flesh out that document’s full meaning and give full-force to the natural rights it memorialized. But look how far we’ve come! That’s not a bad track record especially when you consider how other nations have fared with their own democratic experiments. Americans never experienced the prolonged sectarian strife and public sector instability that’s plagued so many other attempts at self-rule in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.
Why? Again, the comparative approach is always helpful in the study of world politics.
Russian democracy had a shelf life of hours. In one generation, the people of the former U.S.S.R threw off the yoke of communism only to quickly (and willingly) replace it with the rule of a classic (albeit modern) tyranny. Putin is a despot; like most citizens of the world even in 2014, his idea of “nationalism” is ethnic, geographic, historical and policy-based. The one thing Putin isn’t is religious, but we have an entire Middle East ravaged by religious conflict to remind us of how well theocracies function in terms of providing their people with prosperity, security, and access to basic human rights.
For all its current challenges under less-than-inspiring leadership, American-style democracy has held up better over time because participation isn’t predicated upon where you were born or whose blood runs through your veins or who/what/how you worship. Our single dominant commonality is a single yet earth-shattering idea, one that turned the world on its head: those unalienable rights referenced at the beginning of my post. New citizens don’t take an oath of loyalty to a faction; they swear to “support and defend the Constitution.” Teddy Roosevelt once declared that “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.” He was right; the American Experiment is bigger than any individual superficiality.
You can come here, work here, and prosper here, regardless of your background, if you’re willing to buy into the notion that, where your neighbors’ rights are concerned, you need to keep your hands to yourself. It obviously works the other way, too.
That’s also precisely why conservatives don’t support Obamacare, blanket amnesty, “abortion rights” and other popular liberal initiatives. We think these polices are unworkable and immoral in of themselves, it’s true, but our primary concern is always safeguarding against Washington turning the clock back on our constitutional system and seizing plenary power from the people. We’re nothing without our rights to life, liberty and property.
What’s more, we have nothing holding us together, other than Dancing with the Stars and obesity, without that guarantee.
Here’s the catch: it ain’t always easy. I mentioned some examples above. Limited, constitutional governance is a winning, rewarding model but not one unaccompanied by demanding responsibilities. Sometimes human beings think it’s easier to give up their rights and walk away, sacrificing certain rights for temporary securities. One fatal flaw of British-style democracy is its lack of a single governing document that’s damn near impossible to change; the other is the extent to which plenary power remains firmly ensconced in the government’s hands. The end result? It’s a sad bit of irony that many of the early thinkers responsible for birthing natural right and free market theories into the western consciousness – like David Hume, John Locke and Adam Smith – hailed from a country (Scotland) that might be hours away from divorcing the United Kingdom not, mind you, in pursuit of greater freedom but, amazingly, in order to secure of government that places greater restrictions on economic freedom.
We can’t control what the Scottish decide no more than we can cure the Russian people of their affection for strongmen or the dominant Middle Eastern culture’s attraction to religious extremism, Save Jerseyans.
What can we do? Adopting a little more appreciation for our own constitutional achievement would be a nice start! A critical part of this cultural shift would be educating the next generation to understand that “freedom” isn’t just a matter of the right to vote; human history is littered with examples where “free” people vote to subjugate themselves and others. We need to help them see the beneath the surface before they vote their rights away and ours along with them.
You’ve got a Constitution, my fellow Americans! Celebrate it while it lasts, defend it with every ounce of your strength and enjoy it for everything that it’s worth. You’re the envy of many in the aforementioned countries. Never forget that.